The procedure, known as a large core needle biopsy, is less painful, less invasive and less expensive than surgery. And it can save a woman the trauma of waiting for a biopsy after being told she has a suspicious mammogram.
Dorothy Grant is one of the thousands of women who will under go the procedure this year. Not having to wait was a key factor in her decision. "The main reason is because there's cancer in my family and I'm afraid," she says.
Doctors have been performing needle biopsies for a few years, but a study in the latest Journal of the American Medical Association confirms that they're just as effective at detecting cancer as more invasive techniques.
Dr. Jack Meyer, the study's author, says the test is accurate and a lot easier on the patient than older surgical techniques. "I am absolutely confident that this procedure is as accurate as a surgical biopsy."
Meyer did 1,836 large-core needle biopsies over six years on more than 1,600 women who had irregularities on their mammograms that could not be felt in a manual examination. Usually tumors can be felt as little bumps, but sometimes they are too small to feel.
Often women's mammograms show a series of tiny white flecks, which may show tissue damaged by cancer or may mean nothing. If these are spread throughout the breast it is hard to sample them surgically. Meyers says it's they are the perfect candidates for a core needle biopsy.
Traditional surgical biopsies sometimes require general anesthesia, a fairly large incision, stitches and at least a day in the hospital.
In a needle biopsy, the woman lies face down on a table. Using high tech imaging machines with pinpoint accuracy, radiologists guide a needle to the specific site in the breast and take tissue samples for analysis.
"You can take 8/10/20 tissue samples with one insertion and without removing the needle from the breast," Meyers says.
Although the procedure won't work on abnormalities that are too deep in the breast or too close to the surface, there are big advantages.
Marcia Pilalas chose a needle biopsy last year because it had none of the risks or drawbacks of a traditional biopsy. "I can compare needle biopsy to having a tooth filled at the dentist. It is that simple," she says.
The procedure takes about an hour, requires only local anesthetic, and the hole is so small that no stitches are needed. "Most women resume normal activities after biopsy," Meyer says.
"There will be nearly 200,000 new cases of breast cancer this year," he added. "Nearly a million biopsies will be conducted to discover them."
Right now only about one third of all breast biopsies performed are done by needle. But because it is an easier, faster and cheapeprocedure, doctors predict it will soon be the standard of care.